How is the fractured international system failing people affected by disasters?

By Juliet Parker, ALNAP Director

The 5th edition of ALNAP’s landmark report, The State of the Humanitarian System, was released in September 2022. As ever, we’ve aimed to provide a comprehensive overview of humanitarian need and assistance. This edition also shows how a breakdown of trust and cooperation within the international community is making it more difficult for humanitarian workers to deliver lifesaving emergency support to people affected by crises.

The need for humanitarian aid reached an all-time peak between 2018 and 2021. War, hunger, climate change and the economic impacts of COVID-19 combined in unprecedented ways to drive over 250 million people into crisis in 2021. While funding for humanitarian aid reached an estimated $31.3bn in that year, almost double what it had been a decade before, humanitarian organisations were able to reach just 46% of those identified as being in need of support.

Yet as people’s needs grew, so did the barriers to meeting them. Geopolitically, multilateralism was under strain. In many countries, we saw a rise in autocracy and ‘strongman’ politics. Some governments became increasingly emboldened to flout human rights and reject humanitarian norms, with the pandemic providing further cover for violations and restrictions. Several national governments and armed groups deployed outright physical violence or insidious tactics of menace and obstruction to prevent the delivery of impartial humanitarian aid.

Attacks on aid workers rose by 54% between 2017 and 2020 and local humanitarian responders regularly face intimidation and threat of physical violence.

National and international victims of attacks on aid workers, 2015–2022

What humanitarian agencies are able to offer is often limited by the environment in which they operate. In active conflicts and highly constrained environments, blockades, directives and other impediments prevent the delivery of certain provisions, determining what can be given. Conflicts prevent relief workers from doing their jobs, driving the highest-ever totals of refugees and people fleeing violence.

Surveys and interviews with humanitarian practitioners in countries around the world show how conflict situations force humanitarians to compromise on their principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence in order to reach people affected by crisis. As a result, crisis affected people in multiple countries have said they are not receiving enough support, and some feel left behind by the international community.

People who receive humanitarian support have limited trust in selection decisions and poor engagement with affected communities repeatedly undermined perceptions of fairness, fuelling exclusion and mistrust. Transparent communication was all the more important given external influences on selection lists by state authorities and other gatekeepers: one global evaluation found multiple instances of government interference.

There are examples of intelligence officials vetting lists of relief recipients and governments expelling or suspending agencies if they speak out against abuses. In such insecure and politically restrictive settings, threats to the humanitarian space remained a major barrier to reaching populations.

Aid workers have reported having to choose between delivering aid only to people living in territory controlled by specific factions or delivering no aid at all.

The report includes several case studies of countries in which humanitarian work is extremely challenging. The vast majority of humanitarian workers in crisis conflicts are nationals of the country in which they are working. While the number and rate of direct attacks on international staff fell during the period, they rose for national and local workers on whom the system relied upon to deliver in the most difficult contexts.

Even amid this increase in attacks, aid workers responding to our survey felt that bureaucracy and political interference were far greater obstacles to accessing populations in need. Impediments designed ‘to make it a headache for you to be there’ were daily preoccupations. The effect of sanctions and counter-terrorism measures were also a major concern, hampering the ability of agencies to reach people and ‘chilling’ agencies’ risk appetite.

There were, however, indications of progress. The period saw a UN resolution on starvation in conflict, and donors and diplomats were able to secure sanctions exemptions to unblock humanitarian operations in Afghanistan and Yemen.

Photo credit: Jehad Al-Nahary/Oxfam

But the overall picture of adherence to humanitarian norms is currently fairly bleak. Assertive states and a weakened multilateral system have increased the pressure on principled humanitarian action. 45% of aid practitioners surveyed for this report said that respect for humanitarian space had declined between 2018 and 2021.

As United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at the 77th session of the General Assembly, nations are “gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction”. He said that “geopolitical divides are undermining the work of the Security Council’ and that “the United Nations Charter and the ideals it represents are in jeopardy”. As one advocacy leader told our report researchers, the humanitarian system is ‘in an absolute crisis of a fight for core norms’.

The State of the Humanitarian System 2022 looks at the period from January 2018 to December 2021, as well as drawing comparisons with our previous editions to take a 15-year long view. It assesses the size, shape and performance of the humanitarian system against key criteria over time. It is independent and based on evidence from frontline practitioners, crisis-affected populations, academics, policy-makers and donors. It draws on a mixture of qualitative and quantitative data from primary and secondary sources, including evaluation syntheses, quantitative reviews, surveys, interviews and focus group discussions, and longitudinal analysis of our unique 12-year dataset. Feedback and research outputs from affected populations form a significant part of the report.

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A global network dedicated to strengthening humanitarian action through evaluation and learning https://www.alnap.org/25-timeline